To Pay or not to pay? Dilemna in public engagement

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I have mixed feelings about this article, which summarizes several communities’ use of financial incentives to encourage people to participate in public feedback. We have created some very deep barriers to meaningful public engagement, and digging out of that hole is no small task.

On the pragmatic level, I have absolutely no problem paying people to participate in public feedback, especially when the people whose participation we need are already in tight financial situations. Consumer products corporations like my hometown’s Procter & Gamble pay people to participate in focus groups about shampoo expectations, trial panels for toothpaste, even in-home demonstration visits about how you do your laundry. They pay participants because there’s an opportunity cost to their time… and few people care enough about their laundry to sit in an hourlong focus group for free.

The traditional argument in city government has been that the public feedback is part of your civic duty, but we’re asking for basically the same sacrifice of an opportunity cost — especially since we’ve got a distrust problem, and people often think that what they have to say is likely to be ignored. So it’s important to make it worth their while. It’s also elitist and irresponsible to hold public feedback events without offering child care, and transit or parking vouchers, and food and drink, along with full accessibility and accommodation for people who are nonverbal or struggle with public speaking.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

But as that last paragraph hinted, a gift card or even a check is nowhere near enough to overcome that deep-rooted distrust, especially with the communities that have gotten the worst of our technocratic hubris in the past. And it does risk turning a badly damaged social contract into a transactional relationship. We expect and accept that when we’re talking about toothpaste (I don’t know anyone with deep cultural and emotional ties to Crest). But when we’re looking at the places where we live and work and have our communities, then we know deeply that our committment isn’t something that can be bought.

Paying people (especially disadvantaged people) to participate in public feedback is entirely right and appropriate. But it’s just a tiny step toward meaningful public engagement. Any such payment needs to be acknowleged as a small and inadequate step toward bridging the chasm between public and decision-makers, an indicator of good will and willingness to not repeat past mistakes. But it needs to be accompanied, surrounded by, intentional actions that center the community in the decision-making process. That takes more than a gift card.

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